In 60, in his fourth consulship, Nero staged a new and elaborate set of games on a Greek model (the Neronia). These were specifically designed to celebrate Nero’s continuing power (Tacitus, Annales 14.20-21; Dio, 61.21). The event was multi-faceted. It included competitions in Latin poetry and oratory.
Nero won the prize for poetry and was seemingly awarded the prize for oratory and, indeed, lyre playing. The last he dedicated to Augustus.
The event was in part to celebrate Nero’s completion of a gymnasium and bath-house. In the Greek world, gymnasia and baths were often part of the same complex (the gymnasium was to burn down in 62 and so we have little idea what it might have looked like) and it seems likely that there was a conscious imitation of Greek architectural and cultural forms. The traditional Greek gymnasium was the location of Greek cultural events as well as gymnastic training. It is also likely that the baths were vastly expensive, since such public structures were often large and elaborate. The Neronia, then, marked a very public assertion of cultural value by the emperor and a clear association of his rule with the aesthetic values of the Greek East (Suetonius, Nero 12).
The Neronia was more than a theatrical event. The senators and equestrians were given gifts of oil. But the gymnastic element of the festival was held in the Saepta Iulia, which had been constructed by Agrippa, Augustus’ right-hand man. The Saepta was associated with Roman elections, but was also an urban park and entertainment facility for the Roman people (here for reconstructions).
Nero shaved his beard at the festival, which was a traditional celebration that marked the emergence of a male into full manhood. Nero was born in December 37 and was thus 22 years old. His beard was placed in a golden box as an offering to the gods. It was an occasion for magnificent sacrifices of bullocks and consequent public feasting.
The ceremonial had some precedent If one were looking for a parallel, we could see it in the elaborate games that marked the opening of the Forum of Augustus and the emergence of Gaius and Lucius into public life in 2 BC. The connection to Augustus was marked by the dedication of the lyre and by the games in the Saepta Iulia. There was symbolism in the event: it looked to Greek culture (as many of the Augustan buildings had done) but it also looked to Augustus himself and his public and popularist endeavours. It was a statement of intent from Nero that he would follow Augustus in his style of government.
In 64 Nero took to the public stage in Naples (Suetonius, Nero 20; Tacitus, Annales 15. 33). Naples prided itself on its Greek origins and Greek culture. The Bay of Naples was something of a retreat for the Roman aristocracy and the rich villas were places of play and relaxation, often in Greek style. There was no doubt that this was a departure from traditional Roman elite modes of behaviour.
He seems to have taken his appearances on stage seriously, practicing, engaging in the strenuous voice-exercises, learning his performance. This seems to have been more than play for Nero.
In 65, he restaged the Neronia. This was his first major theatrical recital in Rome. The festival began without seemingly any plan for Nero to sing, and perhaps with the senators trying to head off such a performance. But the people demanded that he sang. He performed first in the imperial gardens and there recited some poetry. But the praetorians added their voice to the crowd and he returned to sing in the theatre (Tacitus, Annales 16. 4–5; Suetonius, Nero 21). He performed in proper style, singing the part, conforming to the modes of performance, and asking the judges for their indulgence. The crowd applauded in an elaborate rhythmical style that had been borrowed from Alexandria and in which a special claque had been trained.
What was at stake?
Actors had large public followings; they were celebrities. Emperors sometimes befriended them. But the politics are obscure. Was it really a popular move? Was he courting the approval of the plebs? Our sources are universally hostile, but the performances entailed public demonstrations of support. Can one take seriously the idea that Nero had found a new way to connect to his people?
Nero was not shy of his achievements. The following year, he entertained Tiridates of Parthia in 66 to a display of his singing and chariot-driving (Dio, 63. 1–6; Suetonius, Nero 13). This was once more a complex event. Tiridates had been brought to peace by Corbulo and this counted as Nero’s great military success. he came to Rome to make peace with the Emperor and to ceremonially be granted back his own kingdom. This was done with utmost elaboration. He and his retinue were received in Rome by the Emperor and the senate. Tiridates knelt before Nero and proclaimed his subservience.
Nero raised him up, placed a diadem on his head, and led him to the theatre. Tiridates was proclaimed and friend of Rome, the doors of the temple of Janus were closed (symbolising an end to all war), and wreath was placed on the Capitol as if for a triumph. This was all very traditional and Augustan, but later Nero took to the stage himself.
After this, he travelled to Greece to perform in games and festivals. The performances were prize-winning, even when he fell from his chariot in one race. He completed his trip by freeing Greece from Roman sovereignty and granting Roman citizenship to the judges who had so generously awarded him first place. Elaborate inscriptions celebrated his generosity (Dio, 63. 8–10; 14, 20; Suetonius, Nero 22–5). ‘The freedom of Greece’ meant certain tax privileges and limited rule from Rome. It proclaimed Nero’s allegiance to a grand Hellenistic culture.
His return was celebratory. He entered Naples first, the scene of his debut, and then marched to Rome, the conquering artistic hero.
Nero’s staging of imperial power was certainly eccentric. It looks less strange, though, if we think of it in comparison with Augustan building programmes in the city and grand celebrations. It was precisely this union of Greek and Roman culture in an imperial setting that was to be celebrated in literature, speeches, games, and behaviour by the emperor Hadrian two generations later. Throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, the culture that flourished was a mix of the Hellenistic and the Roman. Roman power was caught up in Greek culture. Roman elite status was also maintained in a fluent relationship with all things Greek.
We have to wonder whether there was method in what later historians universally have seen as his madness.